In a lightening flash of irony, Mother Nature served up the first big rain we’ve had in months during the farm tour sponsored by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Despite the storms, almost 100 people visited Castlemaine Farm, owned by Brian and Joann Gallagher. Named for a village on the coast of Ireland and for Brian’s Irish ancestors, the farm sits on 27 acres in Alamance County outside the town of Liberty.
“We bought the land because it was affordable and close to a number of farmers’ markets,” Joann says. “We’re 20 minutes from Pittsboro, and 30 minutes from Carrboro and Greensboro, where they have good growers-only markets, including one that’s year round.”
Ages 28 and 30, Joann and Brian are the next generation of sustainable farmers, attracted by the promise of running their own business and keen on making the most of marketing.
During their first winter on the farm, they lived in a trailer without running water or electricity. While working full-time and searching for hot showers, they planned a wedding, tilled fields, planted potatoes and, with the help of friends and family, built their house. The slate blue box with white trim looks like it belongs in a fishing village like Bass Harbor, Maine, where Joann grew up. She and Brian live on the second floor and store their farm equipment in the garage below. Outside, a green, white and orange Irish flag flutters in the breeze.
New to the area and to farming, the Gallaghers are thrilled to be part of our vibrant sustainable ag community. They also are getting a taste of what it means to be the little guy in an industry that is dominated by big business.
Joann and Brian both wear glasses and look comfortable in faded T-shirts and jeans. They met at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and after living in Pittsburgh for a year, answered the siren song of Chapel Hill’s music scene in 2000. A self-described city boy with dark curly hair and an impish smile, Brian played guitar for the now-defunct band Buzz Sawyer and spent his free time making music. A visit to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market inspired Joann to take a sustainable farming class at the Central Carolina Community College in Sanford.
Less than a year later, she was working at Peregrine Farm, one of the area’s most successful small farms. Owners Alex and Betsy Hitt gave her hands-on experience and modeled a lifestyle she wanted, one in which she could work with Brian and be her own boss.
“It was an incredible work experience,” she says, tucking her short brown hair behind one ear. “I saw that farming could be a business.” Before working at Peregrine, she considered going back to school. But the job convinced her to work outside in the dirt instead. “I’m an actual farmer because I worked with Alex and Betsy.”
In 2004, Joann started growing her own vegetables on a quarter-acre leased from the Hitts. That April she sold her produce at the Fearrington market and Carrboro’s Wednesday market. By December, she and Brian were living at Castlemaine.
Weekdays, they climb out of bed at 6 a.m. to feed a dog, three cats and 30 chickens before going to work. Brian leaves for UNC’s School of Nursing, and Joanne works two part-time jobs: one at Peregrine Farm, the other in the produce department at Weaver Street Market. Both enjoy their off-farm employment, but they dream of spending all day at Castlemaine.
“We’re sorting through decisions about how big we want to be,” Joann says. “But making enough money to get us here full-time is our biggest challenge.”
They plan to achieve their goal by diversifying; they’ll continue to grow annual vegetables while adding fruit trees and livestock.
They bought the chickens–their first foray into the poultry business–by mail. The Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks and Black Australorps are heritage breeds. With a steady diet of insects and sun-drenched grass, the chickens will produce flavorful eggs with bright orange yolks for market; later this year they’ll be a part of the farm’s crop rotation plan. The birds eat plants and bugs, which helps control pests and weeds.
Once a part of a tobacco farm, the sandy soil at Castlemaine is good for growing root vegetables but not for holding the nutrients that other crops require.
“Because we’re using sustainable farming methods, we use cover crops to retain these nutrients and stop erosion,” Joann says. “The chickens will be our source of fertilizer. Their manure will help keep the nitrogen levels up.”
The photos on Joann and Brian’s Web site (www.castlemainefarm.com) prove they like raising the chicks. Brian is taking a sustainable poultry class at CCCC, while he and Joann explore selling 25 birds a week to a local restaurant. “I would like to raise more,” he says. But he faces a battle with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which plans to implement a National Animal Identification System (NAIS). That would require every livestock operation in the country to be registered and every animal to have a 15-digit identification number. The goal is to create a system that can trace animals to the farm where they were raised if disease or bio-terrorism breaks out.
Written with input from the livestock industry, the NAIS is now in draft form, with the system scheduled to become operational in 2007 and mandatory in 2009. But already it’s drawing criticism from local farmers, including Brian, because it threatens to put the biggest financial burden on small livestock operations.
After reading a Kansas State University study, Brian estimates a radio frequency identification tag for one cow will cost $8.34. “Well, I estimate the tag would cost the same for chickens; we’re just talking about pieces of plastic,” he says. “Most of the cost covers computer chips, laptops and wands the producer has to buy. If Castlemaine raises 25 birds a week, that will cost more than $10,000 a year. We’d be paying to raise chickens.”
In contrast, the proposed system requires larger producers, like Tyson or Purdue, to have just one 15-digit label for a flock of birds, not each individual animal, as long as the chickens are hatched, raised and sold together.
“The NAIS wants to implement a 48-hour trace-back system on small local producers who, because they are selling directly to the customer, already have a five-minute trace-back system,” Brian says.
Still unsure of what NAIS will require and cost, he plans to make his concerns heard. The USDA is actively seeking grassroots input, so he’s hopeful they will modify the plan to better suit small livestock operations. Meanwhile, there are kohlrabi and mustard greens to harvest.
This year, Castlemaine has a stand at Carrboro’s Saturday market. Joann sells the usual array of popular vegetables and adds her own twist to the selection by growing unusual varieties. Last fall, her Asian mustard greens caught Shiloh Avery’s attention.
“I was drawn to her table by the varieties,” Avery says. “In the process I found quality. Not everyone grows mustard greens, and hers were really good, almost sweet.”
As produce manager for the area’s newest co-op grocery, Chatham Marketplace, Avery is looking to build relationships with farmers like Joann. The Pittsboro co-op plans to open in late May with 36 linear feet of produce space. “We’re starting small, and we hope to grow with small farmers,” Avery says. “Castlemaine is the perfect example. As we get bigger, we can carry more of her produce, which will help her succeed.”
Castlemaine will sell spring mustard greens for another week or so. As the crop fades, it will make room for kohlrabi. Bright purple with dark green leaves, kohlrabi is a bulb-shaped stem–not a root–that grows just above the soil to turnip size. It’s a member of the Brassica family, like broccoli and cabbage, with a sweet crisp taste.
“We planted it because it looks funny, almost like a flying saucer,” Joann says. “Most people who know what it is are crazy about it. We sold a lot of it last year.”
If you want Castlemaine’s kohlrabi this year, you’d better hurry. “It’s kind of a bust crop because of the drought,” Joann says.
Joann’s father is a fisherman, and she believes she inherited his work ethic. “Our jobs are similar,” she says. “We’re both at the whim of Mother Nature.” Because growing conditions change each year, every crop presents a learning experience. Joann watches for what works and what doesn’t, taking copious notes.
The last five years have taught Joann that farming is her career of choice. She and Brian work well together, as a couple and as farmers, which makes her confident about Castlemaine’s future.
“What I’m doing makes sense,” she says. “I believe it’s good for the community, and the people around us are friends. We’re like a close family. I want to do a good job because I want to keep that feeling alive.”